Tag Archives: Syria

Fear and Loathing in Washington D.C.

Washington DC Capitol - HDR

“President Obama will negotiate with the Syrian butcher Assad and erase his red line, will capitulate to Vladimir Putin, and he will negotiate with the happy face of the killer regime in Iran, President Rouhani, but not with Republicans over issues all presidents have always negotiated over.”

That quote – from American conservative radio host/shame-free liar and propagandist Hugh Hewitt – encapsulates how far the U.S. has to go to overcome the most embarrassing and pathetic government shutdown in the history of the country. Not every conservative in the United States is as crazy or deluded as Hewitt, but enough are to where an angry, xenophobic, racially charged minority, belonging to one faction in one house of government, has been able to manufacture a government shutdown threatening to destroy the US and global economy unless the party opposite capitulates to their bidding.

The truth is, no American president has ever “negotiated” repealing a duly enacted law [the Affordable Care Act] whilst being blackmailed with the destruction of his government, or indeed with the destruction of the global economy. But this line of baseless rhetoric has become the new mantra of the Republican Party and their apologists: repeat the lie until enough Americans have been coerced that they [Republicans] are not singularly to blame for the disastrous impasses the country continuously finds itself in (e.g. sequestration, shutdown, debt ceiling, etc.). This isn’t just a minority problem – it’s a party problem. The American Tea Party may be [entirely] comprised of callous fools and disgraceful opportunists, but we’re mostly here because “moderate” Republicans have consistently folded to these vandals rather than stand up to them.

It’s important not to forget that Republicans manufactured the U.S. government shutdown for one reason and one reason only: to stop poorer Americans from getting health insurance funded by cuts to Medicare and the taxing of the richest Americans. Let’s also keep in mind that Congress itself passed the healthcare law in 2010; the Supreme Court then affirmed its constitutionality through its landmark ruling earlier this year; and the majority of Americans want it – as proven when they re-elected the President who signed it.

In a few weeks (or sooner), the shutdown/default crisis will long be over and maybe even forgotten. The federal deficit will in all likelihood continue to fall, and growth will probably resume. But the long-term inadequacies of the U.S. political system will continue to be exploited by the Republican Party, creating a sort of dystopic future for American politics. The American people put pretty much all of the blame of the shutdown/default crisis on the shoulders of Republicans, but conservatives can still expect to hold enough seats in the House come the 2014 midterm elections (mainly because of the way district lines are drawn. Republicans were lucky enough to have had a huge win at the state level in 2010, which coincided with post-census redistricting or gerrymandering). Democrats may very well win the White House again in 2016 with Hillary Clinton or Papa Joey B, but the Congress will probably remain the same, meaning we’ll see more shutdowns/threats of defaults before it’s all said and done.

I’ve been able to gauge the puzzled, incredulous looks of my international friends at the LSE – many of whom come from democratic countries – when they hear that an extremist minority party caused the “most powerful” democracy in the world to close up shop. I tell them that American politics, as constructed by James Madison (“father” of the Constitution), was designed with stagnation, derision, and polarization in mind. But the country’s founders couldn’t foresee something as inane as the Tea Party (and warned against political party’s altogether); they couldn’t possibly expect the damning practice of gerrymandering districts or the influence of special interest groups both in elections and public policy.

Mostly, I’ve had to tell my foreign friends that what they’re currently seeing and reading about is not at all what American politics was meant to be. But they better start getting used to it, because it’s here to stay.

Photo: Nicolas Raymond

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Even When The Chemical Weapons Are Gone, Violence And Despair Will Endure In Syria

A man bleeds in a northern Syria hospital after a ricochet bullet went through his foot. In a sense, he was lucky that the bullet did not stay in his body, which would have required surgery to remove. The hospital staff told us that until very recently th

Notwithstanding my remarkably horrendous coping with jet-lag, I have been following along — as best I can — with the developments in, around, and regarding Syria. From the hasty deal struck between Russia and the U.S. to account for Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, to the draft resolution currently underway — and meant for an imminent Security Council resolution — involving diplomats from the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain, it seems like the Obama Administration has been able to avert a war, save face, and reinforce everyone’s favourite international norm.

But while it’s a very good thing the international arena is acting in unison over Assad’s use of chemical weapons, it makes little difference to the everyday Syrian — either fighting in the streets, or fighting to stay alive at home. The sad truth is, we’re in the early stages of a bloodletting in Syria that began nearly 94 years ago when one Brit (Sir Mark Sykes) and one Frenchman (Francois George-Picot) divided the Arab provinces — once belonging to the Ottoman Empire — between their two respective colonial powers. The Sykes-Picot Agreement (also known as the Asia Minor Agreement) of 1920 created the modern state of Syria as we now know it. 20130918-110243.jpgNo one living in Syria ever got a say in how their “nation” was constructed — both in terms of territory, and control. Syria was purposefully devised to pit the Shiite Alawite minority against the Sunni Arab majority, with a side-show consisting of Christians, Druze and Kurds (who are also Sunnis). The same principle (divide-and-rule) applied to Iraq, except the minority Sunnis were used to control the majority Shiites. The reason colonial powers constructed these cynical divisions is simple: appeal to the minority, train them, arm them, and use them to control the majority out of fear, oppression, and obligation. It’s how empires are made, and how they endure.

It should come as no surprise, then, that from Syria and Iraq we had (and have) two of the most brutal, horrific dictators of all time: Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad. They were (and are) manifestations of colonial manipulation; the products of two nations created under the weight of permanent warfare, oppression, and sectarian strife.

“Why do we have a brutal civil war in Syria?” is not the question we should be asking. We know why it’s happening. It’s the same reason we still have one raging in Iraq. The brutal and callous decades long oppression of the majority groups in both states broke free, at long last, with the Arab Spring. For better or worse, and due in large part to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the bloodletting in Syria has only just begun. It won’t stop if and when the chemical weapons stockpiles are accounted for. Nor will it stop if and when Bashar al-Assad is removed from power. Notice for example how when the United States argues that it’s justified in arming the opposition, they make it plain that they intend to only support “moderate” rebels. What about the not-so-moderate rebels? What role will they play in a post-Assad Syria? The quixotic idea that any two sides in this conflict could reach a political agreement, untainted by blood and terror, is as likely as it was in Iraq — where a decade of occupation and trillions of dollars could not prevent 100,000+ deaths.

Innocent men, women and children are being murdered at staggering rates. Some have been gassed, but 99% have lost their lives to the real “weapons of mass destruction”: small munitions. The images of dead children, and the videos of crying mothers holding their lost loved ones are unbearably heartbreaking. But for every image of an innocent life lost, there’s a video of a rebel, or one of Assad’s soldiers, reminding the world through barbaric savagery that this is a sectarian fight to the death.

And no UN Resolution is going to change that.

(Photo: Freedom House)

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Best Of The Week

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Apologies to my readers for the lack of posts these past couple of weeks. I’m moving to London for grad school this weekend, so it’s been difficult to keep up with the blog, but mostly because I didn’t want to do a half-ass job for all of you who regularly keep up with Left and Center. I’m not sure what this blog will look like when I live in London. School will take up a considerable amount of my time, and the time-change will undoubtedly be an obstacle. What I imagine happening is that I’ll shift from a number of posts per day to one or two longer ones.

But back to the matter at hand. It’s been one hell of a week for news, and while I wish I could have written more, I’m happy about what’s been put out. The most popular post of the week was my reaction to where we now stand in regards to Syria: A Better Solution. Close behind in terms of traffic was my breakdown of Russian President Vladimir “KGB” Putin’s op-Ed in the New York Times, Putin, Troll.

Other popular posts (mostly because they were the only posts!) included The Astonishingly Bad Arguments For Another Middle-East War; Could This Kerry Gaffe Save Us From Another Middle-East War?; and, but of course, Forget The Pill, Meet The Pullout Generation.

Back soon.

Publius

(Photo: via wikicommons)

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Putin, Troll

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in today’s New York Times is … weird. It’s goal seems to be to urge President Obama not to launch a military strike against Syria, but it’s also about poking fun at the sort of American exceptionalism expressed in Obama’s recent speech to the nation. Some of the points are compelling and valid, but the piece as a whole is so totally riddled with boisterous hypocrisy, disingenuous double-standards and baffling untruths that any micro-analysis reveals just how anemic and ridiculous the document really is.

Let’s take a look at some key passages (Putin’s remarks are in bold-italics):

“The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”

There are two ways to consider this passage, and both are important. First, Putin makes some valid arguments against US intervention — it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that military action will lead to an escalation of violence and extremism in the region. But let’s be real here: Putin’s thuggish regime has played one of the largest roles in enabling the already awful violence and extremism in Syria. Assad kills so wantonly and so freely in large part because he knows Putin’s got his back in the Security Council. Putin is also Assad’s main source of heavy weaponry.

“Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world.

Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

These are strong, good arguments against outside intervention. Essentially, Putin argues that it’s not in the U.S’s interests to be embroiled in what is a sectarian civil war. But again, Putin himself has been one of the primary actors involved in making the conflict what it is.

“We are not protecting the Syrian government, but international law. We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not.”

Oh, please. Given how hard Putin has fought to block any UN resolution from even verbally condemning Assad’s actions, no thinking person should take seriously this hilariously disingenuous fealty to international law.

“Under current international law, force is permitted only in self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an act of aggression.”

Putin’s Russia launched a war against Georgia five years ago, and it wasn’t approved by the UN Security Council.

“No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack — this time against Israel — cannot be ignored.”

Thankfully, this is totally untrue. An investigation by Human Rights Watch found the Assad regime responsible for the attack, and minutes after this op-Ed was posted, a story broke that the upcoming UN investigation into the matter amasses an unbelievable amount of evidence implicating the Assad regime as the culprits.

“A new opportunity to avoid military action has emerged in the past few days. The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction. Judging by the statements of President Obama, the United States sees this as an alternative to military action.”

This short segment is really the entire purpose of the op-Ed: convince the American people that the best way forward is embracing the Russian plan for a diplomatic solution. But Sam Stein captures the contradiction of Putin’s previous attempt to lay the blame for the chemical weapons attack on the opposition:

“My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.”

Here we finally get to Putin’s criticism of American exceptionalism. You can judge for yourself whether or not you agree that it’s “dangerous” for a nation to believe itself to be exceptional, but just know that the only other country in the world that espouses a similar notion to its own people is — you guessed it — Putin’s Russia.

“There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Go ask a gay or lesbian Russian how they feel about this.

I can understand why readers and commentators find Vlad’s op-Ed interesting, and even “well-written”, but it should stop there. At its core, it’s a piece of disingenuous, hypocritical political propaganda penned by a KGB thug who couldn’t care less about international law, human rights, or the United Nations. Kudos to whoever wrote it.

(Photo: via Wikicommons)

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A Better Solution

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In the march towards a congressional vote on military action in Syria, one thing became glaringly obvious: the Obama administration had run out of options, and leverage. Maybe Secretary of State John Kerry sensed it and knew exactly what he was doing when he offered Syria an olive branch on Monday. The terms were (and are) simple: give up your chemical weapons stockpiles. We don’t know if this was a strategic plan by Kerry, but we do know that it was accepted almost immediately by both Russia and Syria, and has become a far better solution to this whole saga than anything previous.

Military intervention was meant for one (double) reason only: deter the future use of chemical weapons, and make sure Assad can’t do this again. It was never meant to remove Assad from power, or substantially help the opposition — that would be “war”, according to the Obama administration. What this proposal from Russia/Syria/Kerry does is put these weapons under the control of the international arena — presumably some UN agency — therefore accounting for both deterrence and Assad’s capability to use chemical weapons. If the Obama administration has been honest all along, and chemical weapons have been the first and only reason to act, it couldn’t have worked out better.

Many are pointing out that, “we’re relying on Russia and Syria to carry this out? Fat chance.” They have a point. Maybe the plan will never be realized; but it’s still a better option than military intervention. Russia’s acceptance of the plan means we may see a Security Council resolution affirming this proposal — something that’s been missing all along. Russia wont veto a resolution they themselves proposed, and I doubt China would want to be the lone state standing in the way of a diplomatic solution.

Another pessimistic — but possible — take is that Assad will never agree to go through with this. Having chemical weapons is not an insignificant thing in the grander scheme of regional power politics, where Assad has to keep one eye on neighbors like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, who want nothing more than a regime change in Damascus.

But even if Assad balks, the entire paradigm of this conflict has been altered for the better. If the United States feels forced to attack Syria if the proposal fails, they’ll probably do so with a UN resolution and a greater number of allies behind them — both pipe dreams on September 8. And if by chance Assad agrees to whatever the proposal ends up being, the U.S. will have averted a war, saved face, and accounted for Syria’s chemical weapons. Win-win-win.

On September 8, the United States stood completely alone. Domestic support was horrendous; the backing of the Security Council (and NATO) was nonexistent; Russia was becoming more vocal and dangerous; Iran was threatening retribution; and even Britain pulled support.

How strange would it be, then, if a simple gaffe by John Kerry ended up preventing another Middle-East war?

(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs)

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The Astonishingly Bad Arguments For Another Middle-East War

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During the absurd Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing featuring three senior American officials — Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chuck Hagel, Secretary of Defense, and John Kerry, Secretary of State — on why the Administration is justified in seeking Congressional approval for a strike against Syria, Kerry argued — with a straight face — that, “We don’t want to go to war in Syria either … The President is not asking you to go to war.”

Except that’s exactly what he’s asking. What is Kerry trying to argue? That just because the ships launching the missiles will be safe from retaliatory fire, it’s not war? Do we only label something as war when other nations kill Americans, not the other way around? I get that it’s kind of been an American thing to launch bombs against other countries, but have we become so jaded about the seriousness of war that we hesitate in labeling a massive bombing campaign against another state’s infrastructure (and people) as such?

The rest of the arguments for intervention — heard during the hearing — were just as illogical, and because I don’t want you to have to sit through the same excruciating video I did, here’s my summary:

    • Assad used chemical weapons, so we should make an example of him to deter other dictators from using chemical weapons in the future. BUT, we don’t mean we should punish him to the point of removing him from power, since Syria would “implode”. Instead, the punishment would focus ONLY on his chemical weapons capabilities. So, while our policy is that Assad has to go, we won’t force him to go. In that case, we’ll launch surgical air strikes directed at his chemical weapons capabilities, but not his ability to rule over Syria. And, we’ll just have to live with the fact that we’re NOT accounting for the other weapons that have killed 99% of Syrians during this conflict. Please vote yes.

Here’s the video (it’s really long):

While reinforcing some abstract international norm — that nations like the United States have willingly broken themselves by allowing Saddam’s regime to use chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War — sounds good as a talking point, it hardly motivates anyone to throw their support behind another war. According to The Independent, about 80% of the British people oppose exactly what Obama’s proposing. A Washington Post/ABC News poll found nearly 70% of Americans are likewise against it.

But even while Obama enjoys considerably less domestic support than Bush had with Iraq, as well as no British backing, and open condemnation from much of the UN for immediate intervention, his proposition for air-strikes against Syria may very well pass — by the skin of it’s teeth — in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. Our only hope is that — as we saw in the House of Commons — the representatives of the American people will actually listen to their constituents, and save us all from yet another bloody, costly, unjustified and unpopular sectarian war in the Middle East.

(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs)

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Best Of The Week

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I feel like in years to come, we’ll look back on events this week and wonder what we could have done, or argued, differently. I don’t know what will happen if we intervene in Syria. No one can know something like that. What I rely on instead is what little I know about regional history, past military interventions, sectarian violence and the great fallacy that is international law. But despite my furious objection to intervention, my heart breaks that so many innocent people have died — and will die. In a perfect world, we could act as guardian protectors for all those who cannot protect themselves. Provide justice from above. But this isn’t a comic book, and limited air strikes won’t make a bit of difference in the rate of death, turmoil and despair in that poor country. What will happen, I fear, is that we’ll be sucked into another war.

That means more death. More suffering. That’s what I’m opposing.

The most popular post of the week — unsurprisingly — was one of my many pieces on the subject: Syria Is Not Iraq. It’s Much Worse.

Other notable posts included Republicans Were Invited To Attend And Speak At MLK Ceremony. They Didn’t Show Up.; Did The Worst Chemical Weapons Attack In Decades Just Happen In Syria?; the hilariously contentious Starbucks Is Better Than Your Local Coffee Shop. Deal With It.; The Arguments For (And Against) Intervention In Syria; and finally, Boomers, Ye Be Warned: Millennials Are Not Anti-Politics.

More after the holiday.

Publius

(Photo: Chair. Joint Chiefs of Staff)

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Where Is The Anti-War Movement?

SF Peace Protest

Rosie Gray reports on a troubling trend we’ve been noticing here on Left and Center: as we gear up for yet another intervention, the anti-war Left is nowhere to be found:

Activists who turned out thousands of protesters during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq say they’ve been unable to effectively organize or raise money since the end of the Bush years, and that newer causes like drones have seized the space on the left once occupied by opposition to conventional warfare. And some acknowledge that the energy has leaked out of the movement because a Democrat is now in office. Though some groups have organized online petitions and some real-life protests, the antiwar crowd that was on fire before the war in Iraq has made hardly a dent in the conversation surrounding Syria.

Reihan Salam buys into the partisan angle:

Democratic success hasn’t just weakened the antiwar movement. Though the Obama administration has been criticized by environmentalists and civil libertarians for various failures, real and perceived, the energy behind these movements tends to wane under Democratic administrations, and not just because Democratic administrations are more likely to accept the legitimacy of environmentalist and civil libertarian claims. Similarly, conservative calls for fiscal consolidation and abortion restrictions have tended to be more muted under Republican administrations, though it is possible that this will change in the future.

So, it’s an interesting observation, but not entirely fair. Anti war movements take time to really gain traction, and it’s barely been a week since Obama first signaled his intent to intervene militarily in Syria.

Joshua Keating notes some other reasons why criticisms of the anti-war left may be premature:

…a major premise of the anti-Iraq movement was that the Bush administration was hyping the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. Yes, Saddam Hussein had also used chemical weapons (with the U.S. government’s knowledge), but that was years earlier. In this case the attack happened last week and the photos of its aftermath are still being plastered on the news. You can argue that Assad’s use of chemical weapons is a bad reason to attack, but it’s harder to argue that the Obama administration is simply inventing a reason to invade a country it has been wanting to invade for years.

Then there’s the issue of casualties. There’s no discussion at the moment of ground troops in Syria, and so the likelihood of U.S. troops dying is less. Anti-war groups do obviously care about Iraqi or Syrian civilian casualties, but as they’ve learned in trying to organize opposition to U.S. drone strikes, it’s much harder to excite public passion when Americans themselves aren’t dying.

(Photo: Ed Johnson)

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Tweet Of The Day: Britain Stands Above

The story can be read here. Long live competence.

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What The Rest Of The World Thinks Of US

U.S Military Forces in Bosnia - Operation Joint Endeavor

Paul Waldman provides timely perspective on how the rest of the world feels about U.S. military action since 1963:

Some of these operations worked out very well, others didn’t. And just to be clear, this history doesn’t tell us whether bombing Syria is a good idea or a bad idea. But if you’re wondering why people all over the world view the United States as an arrogant bully, reserving for itself the right to rain down death from above on anyone it pleases whenever it pleases, well there you go. It doesn’t matter whether you think some or even all of those actions were completely justified and morally defensible. From here, we tend to look at each of these engagements in isolation, asking whether there are good reasons to go in and whether we can accomplish important goals for ourselves and others. But when when a new American military campaign begins, people in the rest of the world see it in this broader historical context.

If you take a longer look at the list he provides (and do some basic math), you’ll find that the United States has launched one significant overseas assault every three years since 1963 — or every 40 months. Kevin Drum laments how little of this resonates with the American people:

Too many Americans have a seriously blinkered view of our interventions overseas, viewing them as one-offs to be evaluated on their individual merits. But when these things happen once every three years, against a backdrop of almost continuous smaller-scale military action (drone attacks, the odd cruise missile here and there, sending “advisors” over to help an ally, etc.), the rest of the world just doesn’t see it that way. They don’t see a peaceful country that struggles mightily with its conscience and only occasionally makes a decision to drop a bunch of bombs. They see a country that views dropping bombs as its primary means of dealing with any country weaker than we are.

Considering the rate at which we’ve launched bombs against foreign states the past 50 years, we’re actually ahead of schedule for the next round. It’s only been two years since Libya.

(Photo: U.S. military forces in Bosnia — operation Joint Endeavor, by Expert Infantry)

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Representatives Urge Obama To Consult With Congress Over Syrian Intervention

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Kevin Drum has the developing story:

Rep. Scott Rigell (R–Virginia) reports that as of a few minutes ago his letter urging President Obama to consult Congress before launching an attack on Syria is “Inching…toward…100… 81 Republicans and 16 Democrats have signed on to our letter so far…” That’s good. But I sure wish more Democrats were willing to get on board.

Why so few Democrats would get behind something as common-sense as this is perplexing, and perhaps telling of how much of Washington is motivated by Partisan hackery. But given that the proposed intervention is widely unpopular (even more unpopular than Congress, if you can believe it), why wouldn’t the President want to get Congress behind him here? Firstly, it would legitimize the action, but it would simultaneously protect both the President and his party from taking on all the blame should it go badly. Even David Cameron called a special Parliament to openly debate Britain’s involvement.

And what will it mean as precedence for this President — who once vowed to never use military force without congressional approval — to circumvent Congress in such a way not even seen during the hellish years of his predecessor?

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Map Of The Day: Sectarianism In Syria

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Max Fisher breaks down the map above, provided by Columbia University’s Gulf/2000 Project, which “shows the different ethnic and linguistic groups of the Levant, the part of the Middle East that’s dominated by Syria, Lebanon and Israel”:

Ethnic and linguistic breakdowns are just one part of Syria’s complexity, of course. But they are a really important part. The country’s largest group is shown in yellow, signifying ethnic Arabs who follow Sunni Islam, the largest sect of Islam. Shades of brown indicate ethnic Kurds, long oppressed in Syria, who have taken up arms against the regime. There are also Druze, a religious sect, Arab Christians, ethnic Armenians and others.

Syria is run by Alawites, a minority sect of Islam whose members include President Bashar al-Assad and many in his inner circle. They’re indicated in a greyish green, clustered near the Mediterranean coast. Although Alawites make up only 12 percent of the Syrian population, they are playing a crucial role in the war, fighting to prop up Assad’s regime.

He also uses the map to further this argument made by the great Fareed Zakaria, which we’ve featured several times here on Left and Center:

Zakaria’s thesis is that what we’re seeing in Syria is in some ways the inevitable re-balancing of power along ethnic and religious lines, with the Sunni Arab majority retaking control from the Alawite minority. He compares the situation to post-2003 Iraq, when members of the Shiite majority violently took power from the Sunni minority that, under Saddam Hussein, had ruled them. That would explain why so much of the killing in Syria has been along sectarian lines. It would also suggest that there’s not much anyone can do to end the killing because, in his view, this is a painful but unstoppable process.

(Map courtesy of Gulf/2000 Project)

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Syria Is Not Iraq. It’s Much Worse.

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The big news today is that we should expect limited air strikes against Bashar al Assad to commence within the next few days, aimed at sending a clear message to the embattled dictator — and to the next civilian group or military leader locked in a terrible war — that the use of chemical weapons is just not worth it.

A nation’s credibility is important, if indeed that nation needed credibility in order to operate its foreign policy effectively. The United States has the biggest and strongest military since forever, and that should be credibility enough.

But ultimately, this isn’t about chemical weapons or about reinforcing some abstract international norm that nations like the United States have willingly broken themselves. It’s about stopping a brutal man from slaughtering thousands of his own people. It’s about removing him from power (eventually) and replacing him with someone who will operate under the guidance of the West. That’s why the CIA overthrew Mossadeq; why we invaded Iraq; why we engineered Gaddafi’s demise; and why we supported the overthrow of Mubarak. That’s what we do.

I’m not exactly expressing an unpopular opinion here when I say that intervention in Syria is the worst idea in the last decade or so. For the American public, congress polls higher than this war. But Jonathan Chait raises an important point that I think needs to be addressed. His premise is that younger neoliberals whose formative years came during the Iraq war are mistakenly juxtaposing that war and it’s consequences on every other conflict that comes around. In short, he argues that Syria is not Iraq:

The merits of intervening in Syria strike me as both a closer call and a lower-stakes matter than what we think of as “major wars.” The apparently forthcoming operation has much more modest ends than the intervention in Libya, which I supported and that succeeded in its aim. We will not be toppling a brutal regime or preventing an imminent massacre. The purpose of air strikes is to impose a cost on regimes that deploy chemical weapons against civilians. Attacking the Syrian regime won’t stop all future massacres of civilians, or even all chemical attacks on civilians, but it does strike, on balance, as better than doing nothing at all.

I would have liked Chait to highlight that entire section and type “yet” off to the side. Sure, the “proposed” air strikes are a heck of a lot more lower-stakes than full scale intervention in Iraq was, but does he really think that the United States can bomb a country at war, exacerbating a conflict to who knows what, and then just shrug and walk away?

He ends with this:

I don’t like killing Syrians. And a lot of Syrians are getting killed. I don’t see any plausible way to stop that from happening. I do think that killing some of the Syrians who are soldiers wantonly killing civilians will probably lead to a net decrease in killing. As I said, it is not an easy call. But I continue to be amazed that some of my younger liberal friends find it so easy to dismiss any weighing of pros and cons by venturing arguments structurally identical to ones that, in a domestic context, they recognize as absurd.

The point is, there is no plausible way to stop the killing from happening, and I fail to see how killing Syrians who are killing Syrians will lead to a decrease in killing Syrians. If anything, this will invigorate pro-Assad Syrians to kill more, and will lead to a dramatic increase in the already staggering number of Iranians and *enter-your-foreign-terror-group-here* already imbedded in the war. I’ve said it before, exhaustingly, that we have before us a regional, sectarian war that has been brewing since the Iraq debacle severed the region’s fragile stability – further severed by the barrage of change unleashed by the Arab Spring. Beneath the Iran-Israel stand-off, we also have a Shia-Sunni struggle, in which Assad and Khamenei and Hezbollah and Maliki are fighting off Sunni Jihadists and democrats trying to depose Assad. The point is that this cannot be our problem to solve. It cannot become our fight. There are no good options when it comes to Syria, but the least worst option is to surely stand aside and let the conflict resolve itself.

(Photo: Freedom House)

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The Arguments For (And Against) Intervention In Syria

Members of the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group made up largely of defectors from President Bashar al-Assad’s army, attacked a column of government tanks passing through the town of Saraqib, Syria.

We still don’t know for sure if Bashar Al Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in the suburbs east of Damascus. Considering the lengthy list of barbaric atrocities carried out by his regime, and given that UN inspectors were — just today — targets of sniper fire while attempting to gather proof that could possibly exonerate Assad if indeed he’s been telling the truth, I don’t think I’m going out on any limb by saying that I think he almost certainly used chemical weapons.

I’ve long argued that there’s no good option when it comes to Syria, but non-intervention is the best-bad choice. Despite that, it looks ever more certain that intervention of some sort is brewing, and so if involvement is the worst option on the table, then air strikes have to be considered as the best worst option of the worst option.

Over at Wonkblog, Max Fisher provides the most basic arguments for and against intervention by air strikes. The case against air strikes is pretty damn good: they won’t change the trajectory of the conflict; civilian casualties will increase; and there will almost certainly be an escalation of hostilities.

The case for air strikes is a little less persuasive:

1) A “punishment” strike against Assad’s forces for this month’s suspected chemical weapons attack would make him think twice before doing it again….

2) The international norm against chemical weapons matters for more than just Syria….When the next civilian or military leader locked in a difficult war looks back on what happened in Syria, we want him to conclude that using chemical weapons would not be worth the risk.

3) Even just the (apparently earnest) threat of U.S. strikes could change Assad’s behavior.

The three arguments are interchangeable, and call for the exact same outcome: make sure chemical weapons are never used again. But would surgical air strikes against military targets deter Assad — or any other future-dictator in a fight for his existence — from using chemical weapons against those attempting to depose him? Unless the air strikes are devastating, I doubt it.

Make no mistake here: the United States would be declaring war against Assad if air strikes commence. There’s only one way to change Assad’s “behavior”, and that’s by removing his government from power.

(Photo: Freedom House. Members of the Free Syrian Army, an armed opposition group made up largely of defectors from President Bashar al-Assad’s army, attacked a column of government tanks passing through the town of Saraqib, Syria.)

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Did The Worst Chemical Weapons Attack In Decades Just Happen In Syria?

20130821-103116.jpg(YouTube Screenshot)

Syrian rebels claim that Assad’s forces used chemical weapons against “women, children”, and themselves in the suburbs east of Damascus, affecting at least 1,300 people:

BEIRUT/AMMAN – Syria’s opposition accused President Bashar al-Assad’s forces of gassing many hundreds of people – by one report as many as 1,300 – on Wednesday in what would, if confirmed, be the world’s worst chemical weapons attack in decades.

George Sabra, one of the leading opponents of Assad, said the death toll was 1,300 killed by poison gas released over suburbs east of Damascus.

“Today’s crimes are … not the first time the regime has used chemical weapons. But they constitute a turning point in the regime’s operations,” he told a news conference in Istanbul. “This time it was for annihilation rather than terror.”

An opposition monitoring group, citing figures compiled from medical clinics in the Damascus suburbs, put the death toll at 494 – 90 percent of them killed by gas, the rest by bombing and conventional arms. The rebel Syrian National Coalition said 650 people had been killed.

If the cause of death and the scale of the killing were confirmed, it would be the worst known use of chemical weapons since Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein gassed thousands of Kurds in the town of Halabja in 1988.

It’s always difficult to figure out exactly what happened, or who to believe, but Foreign Policy reports that videos “showed Syrians lying on the floor gasping for breath, medics struggling to save infants, and rows of bodies of those who had reportedly died in the attack.”

https://twitter.com/lizobagy/statuses/370209257569804288

But it has to be noted that all of the information coming out of the Ghouta region, where rebels enjoy broad support, has yet to be confirmed by independent observers. The videos do suggest some sort of attack, but some have expressed doubt that the released footage shows enough of the symptoms that would follow a chemical weapons attack of this kind.

So we’re really left with one option here: dispatch the UN observers who are already in the country to the affected areas ASAP. If they find that chemical weapons were indeed used, then we can verify what the rebel groups have been saying and go from there. If they aren’t allowed into the area by the Syrian regime, then we have Assad basically admitting guilt.

The interesting question here is what will happen if the reports are confirmed and the worst chemical weapons attack — let’s just call it a good old fashioned war crime — since Saddam in 88′ just took place. Will Obama finally be moved to intervene? Would intervention be the sort of disaster I’ve been saying it would be? Or will the U.S., and the UN, simply turn a blind eye yet again to Assad?

Probably the latter. But let’s wait and see.

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